|One of our superintendents said that the boys in the anthracite coal fields graduate from the breakers and the mines. It is appropriate then to add the breaker as a school where our boys are trained. Letourneau said that the Targui women knew how to read and write in greater numbers than the men. That is the case with those raised in our territory. The girls are better educated than the boys.|
Boys at work in a coal breaker.
In the breakers of the anthracite coal industry there are nearly 18,000 persons employed as slate pickers. The majority of these are boys from the ages of 10 to 14 years. In an investigation conducted in an area where 4,131 persons wholly dependent on the mines lived, we found 64 children employed in and around the mines not 14 years of age. There were 24 boys employed in breakers before they were 12 years of age. In other sections of the coal fields the evil of employing children under age in breakers and mines is worse than in our limited area. But if the proportion above mentioned prevails in these coal fields, there are employed in the breakers about 2,400 boys under 12 years of age, and nearly 6,400 boys under 14 years of age working in and around the mines. The tabulated report of superintendents of public schools in Lackawanna county given above, shows how prevalent the evil of child labor is. Improved machinery for cleaning coal has displaced many boys, and it is hoped that a still further improvement and utilization of such machinery will render unnecessary the labor of boys hardly in their teens in these breakers. No industry demands the service of boys whose bone and muscle are not hardened and whose brain has not been developed for continuous and effective thinking. Muscle without intelligence is annually depreciating, being displaced by machinery which does nearly all the rough work. To stunt the body and dull the brains of boys in breakers is to rob them of the mental equipment which is essential to enhance their social worth and enable them to adjust themselves to the requirements of modern life.
The laws of our State relative to child labor are an intricate mass of confusing statutes,* which well illustrate the legislative jobbery of our representatives, who disregard both science and history in their eagerness to do something whereby their political prospects may be enhanced. The law requires every employer to keep a register of all boys employed under 16 years of age which may be seen by the inspectors. No employer does it. Certificates from the parents or guardians of the child, stating its age, are required before the child is employed. Employers secure these but they are not reliable. The employer is protected, the child sacrificed, and a premium is put on perjury.
No industry in the State is so demoralizing and injurious to boys as the anthracite coal industry. For the last half a century these breakers have been filled with boys who should have been in the public schools. They were put to work before they acquired the three "most essential parts of literary education, to read, write and account," and failing to acquire these to the degree in which it is necessary in order to derive pleasure and utility from them in daily life, they grow up in illiteracy, and by the time they are young men many of them cannot read or write their mother tongue. If society in anthracite communities is to be safeguarded against injuries which can be avoided only by increased intelligence, greater attention must be given to the public education of the children.
Necessity often accounts for the presence of boys in the breakers or mines. Many of the advocates of reform lose sight of this. There are many widows and poor families in these coal fields that need the wages earned by these children, and it would be well for kind-hearted people, who consider only the general desirability of fuller education of these boys, to remember this. On the other hand there are many parents who exploit their children. Of the 64 children employed as above referred to, 35 of the parents owned their own homes. Of the nationalities represented the Sclavs were in the lead, but the English, Irish and Welsh followed closely, while 12 of the parents were native born. These parents do not see that a liberal education to the boys is a better investment than to build a house. Solon made a law which acquitted children from maintaining their parents in old age who had neglected to instruct them in some profitable trade or business. Some such law is necessary to-day in anthracite communities to force parents, financially able, to keep their children in school until they graduate the common branches.
The breaker, where most boys of mine employees begin their life as wage earners, is not favorable to the intellectual development of the lad, however bright his parts may be. Over the chute where the coal passes he stoops and with nimble fingers picks out the impurities. In breakers, where water is not used to wash the coal, the air is laden with coal dust; in winter the little fingers get cold and chap, and at all times when the machinery is in motion the noise from revolving wheels, crushers, screens and the rushing coal is deafening. In such an environment there is nothing to quicken the talent or develop the aesthetic sense of a boy. All is depressing and the wonder is that so many boys who began life under such conditions have been able to rise to prominence in the various spheres of life.
The boy learns many things in the breakers and in the mines. The hard conditions do not dampen the ardor and crush the spirits of the average lad. Most of them are bright, cheerful and full of tricks. They have a good appetite and with dirty hands the contents of the dinner-pail generally disappears. They have their "spats" and fights, and woe betide the man who injures one of them. They are full of fun and frolic, but their curiosity sometimes leads them to injury and death. Many of them fall into the machinery and are mangled, or down the chutes and are smothered. Of all deaths in this risky business the death of one of these boys is the saddest. To witness a funeral procession of a boy hardly in his teens and the cortege made up of his companions in the breaker, is a sight sad enough to melt a heart of stone, and every humane soul asks: "Is this sacrifice of youth necessary for the prosperity of the mining industry?"
There are three things which boys learn in the breakers; they are chewing and smoking tobacco and swearing. Some indeed have learned these before they begin to work in the breaker. Old Abijah Smith said, in his reminiscences of the early days of anthracite mining, that no youth would think of using tobacco before he was 18 years of age. Times have changed in the Wyoming Valley and many lads now contract the habit before they are in their teens, while boys playing on the streets use profane language which horrifies the morally sensitive. Sclav boys when irritated swear shamelessly and afford considerable mirth to their seniors. Many boys trained in a religious home resist the temptations to obscenity and vicious practices so common in and around the mines, but it requires unusually strong moral qualities to develop moral character under conditions so unfavorable.
One of the greatest enemies of these boys is the cigarette. In a mining town where this curse of boyhood was sold in three stores, the consumption was 1,200 boxes or 12,000 cigarettes a month. Miners who smoke use the pipe or a cigar, so that these cigarettes were sold to boys from 8 to 16 years.** There were 480 youths of that age in the borough, so that the consumption per capita was 25 cigarettes, providing all of them smoked. If half the youths-many novices and some veterans-only indulged the per capita consumption per month was double. This evil prevails extensively in mining towns. One of our public school principals was so convinced of the prevalence of the habit among his scholars, that he went to the stores selling cigarettes and asked the traders not to cut the boxes, for many tots came to buy two cigarettes for a penny. The practice of cutting the boxes still goes on. Careful observation of the physical, mental and moral injury wrought by this habit upon boyhood ought to move every community to wage a war of extermination upon this foe which destroys so many boys. Anti-tobacco leagues are sadly needed here. But what hope is there of reforming the boys when the fathers are so addicted to the habit? A superintendent says: "Only one of our teachers uses tobacco; nearly all of the men in our town do use it, ministers, lawyers, doctors, Sabbath school superintendents, etc. Many of these men stand high in the community.... What chance has a poor female teacher that is not considered worth more than $28 per month with her children, who can go out and earn more picking slate than she ? " ***
There are many other practices among these boys which sap their physical and moral powers. In Lackawanna county a practice known as the " knock down " prevails among the boys. They take regularly from their pay a certain amount before they give their wages to their parents. Some of the coal companies afford the boys an opportunity for this practice, by not issuing a statement of the wages earned by them. Few parents know the rate of wages paid the boys and the time worked by them. They can only find this out by asking the boss--a thing the average parent will not do. Fathers working in the same colliery as their children are so indifferent to the children's earnings, that they know not when the " knock-down " is practiced by the boys. The boys are exceedingly skillful at the business. Many of them live in the same neighborhood and know that their mothers compare notes at pay-day. In order to guard against detection which may arise from a discrepancy in the pays of boys rated alike, they meet and agree to take out the same amount. Boys take in this way from 50 cents to $1 out of their two weeks' pay. In a local strike in 1900, some fathers complained that the boys did not get the regular rate of wages. When shown that they were paid the standard wage the parents were mortified to learn that they were victims of the " knock-down " habit. The revelation occasioned considerable comment and when a company of men discussed the question, one of them said: " It's an old trick: we used to do it ourselves." No one contradicted him, and some fathers practice it still--they hide a bill in the "bacca-box" before they hand the pay over to the wife.
Many of the boys patronize the slot machine, while some of them follow with great zeal cock-fighting and stake 5 or 10 or 25 cents on the main. Most of the small boys, however, spend their money in luxuries, and to watch these boys on pay night in the candy shop is one of the most amusing sights imaginable. They compare their cash; they count their change; they boast how much ice cream, candy, peanuts and soda they consume. The small boy lays away his cigarette very stealthily, while the veteran puffs boldly into the air. The lad of 16 years is about to pass from the candy store, but still lingering where the younger boys are, he feels the dawn of independence, and smokes a cigar to the envy of the smaller lads. All the rivalry, the cunning, the shrewdness, the vanity and the follies of life are seen here as in a microcosm. It is the drama of life in its pleasures, anxieties and pains.
Boys from 12 to 14 years spend from $1 to $2 a month. Those limited to 50 cents or a $1 "blow it in" on pay-night. Those having $1.50 to $2 are "flush" the night after pay, but the evening following they are all on a par--every pocket is empty The only time the economic vision of these boys is exercised is when the circus comes to town. Then close figuring is done. They come to the last 30 or 25 cents. That they stow away for the expected night, sacrificing the pleasures of the moment for the promise of a good show. Stores which give the boys "tick" soon get out of business. A boy that owes 25 cents steers clear of that bill. The small boy's trade can only be held on a strictly cash basis.
When the lad reaches 16 or 17 years he leaves the candy shop. He feels himself above the small boys that congregate there and he hankers for something other than the "soft stuff" sold in them. It is the turning point in the young man's career. From his early boyhood every pay-night meant a dissipation after the manner of boys. He still craves for that excitement and dissipation and, forsaking the candy store, he finds only one place of welcome--the saloon. Candy is no longer the basis of his dissipation. It is beer and tobacco. When this hour comes many are the boys in mining towns who frequent saloons, for there is no other place provided to meet their requirements. Right here philanthropic efforts should be put forth in anthracite towns and villages. Money taken out of these rich coal deposits cannot find anywhere in the land a better opportunity for good. The founding and endowing of educational and social institutions on a grand scale is become the fashion of rich men of to-day, but it has not begun in these coal fields. For the last half century the sons of anthracite mine workers have been left to the saloon, the dancing hall and the theatre, and lawlessness, irreverence and crime have steadily increased. Is it not time for the leaders in our society to turn their attention to the degeneracy which has gone on apace, and plant institutions for the benefit of these youths whereby they may be helped to better manhood and find that there are higher pleasures in the world than those of sense?
Human nature in the boys of the anthracite coal fields is the same as that of any other crowd of boys. A group of them is equal in original talent to any group of children, but they are planted in hard, coarse soil, and their physical, intellectual and moral parts are stunted. What we need is to give these boys a better environment. Raise the age at which they can begin work to 14 years **** as it is in most other States; arouse public sentiment to the rights of children to a liberal education and to the wrongs of greedy parents who perjure themselves and exploit their children; establish a system of public aid whereby widows will not be forced to send their tender boys to the mines or breakers; then possibly boys of tender years can be kept out of breakers. Ignorance will necessarily lead to confusion and industrial crises, which bring disaster to all interests but which inflict greatest injury on the working classes.
* The law of 1849 provides that no child under 13 years of age can be employed in any factory and all children under 16 years can only be employed for nine months and must attend school for three consecutive months each year. The law of 1899 says that any child between the ages of 13 and 16 years can be employed if he can read and write the English language intelligently. The law of 1849 says that no child can be employed for more than 10 hours each day and the law of 1893 gives permission to employ them for 12 hours a day. An act of 1891 gives permission to employ boys at 12 years in the breakers and boys of 14 years in anthracite mines and an act of 1887 makes it a misdemeanor to employ a child under 12 years of age in mills, factories, mines, etc. A law of 1885 permits the employment of boys 12 years of age in bituminous mines, while boys of 10 years can be employed outside bituminous collieries. In the last legislature (1903) a law was passed raising the age at which boys can be employed in breakers to 14 and in the mince to 16 years, but it is questionable whether this law applies to bituminous as well as anthracite mines.
**The last legislature has made it a grime to sell cigarettes or cigarette paper to youths under 21 years of age. But of what good are laws unless they are executed ? The age limit was 16 years and tots of 8 years purchased cigarettes freely.
*** Near a barn in one of the alleys in Mahanoy City, two girls, neither of rhom was 12 years of age, were seen stealthily smoking cigarettes While laws are passed in Harrisburg against the sale of cigarettes to minors, the evil grows and shall our young girls fall victims to that which ruins so many of our boys 7
****This chapter was written in 1902, previous to the passage of the law raising the age at which boys can begin work in the breaker to 14 years. An inquiry into the effect of this law, made last October, leads us to believe that it is not enforced. When it was signed by the Governor, an effort was made in some localities to enforce it, but boys who were sent home this month returned the next with the new certificate from perjured parents. In some towns more boys of from 11 to 13 years are in school this year than last, but from most of our towns and boroughs the report comes: " No apparent effect that we can see." With a worthless system of gathering birth statistics, with parents who regard their children as productive agents, and with politicians in control of all civic offices, what hope is there of keeping tender boys of 12 and 13 years from the breakers?